Ryan Madson has an analogy to explain Cole Hamels' woes this season.
Madson, the Phillies' top setup man, insists that the 25-year-old lefty has really good stuff but is too often his missing spots. Madson explains that success in this sport rests on a delicate balance point, in which even a small chink can lead to a major problem. It's like, he says, a small rip in the hem of a pair of jeans that quickly splits the leg in two.
"Sometimes little things get out of control," Madson said. "It's a fine line between really good and just normal."
Hamels was Philadelphia's World Series hero last season, but going into his World Series Game 3 start Saturday evening, with the Phillies and Yankees tied one game apiece, his performance this year has mostly been normal. Pitching success can be a fickle mistress.
The problem, as Hamels sees it, is his propensity to ruin an otherwise good start with one bad, multi-run inning.
"A lot of times, I can go real smoothly and the game can go quick, but then one hit turns into a few and morphs into a bad inning," Hamels said. "That's what has really cost me my year, that one inning, every game that I've let get away."
The reality, however, is that Hamels hasn't been victimized by that many more bad innings, allowing at least three runs in an inning 13 times in 2009, compared to 10 such innings in '08.
But a three-run inning can be the difference between a pitcher getting a win or a loss, and those three additional instances of having a bad inning helps explain why Hamels was 14-10 in '08 and 10-11 in '09. Hamels' FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of a pitcher's ERA standardized for his fielders' proficiency -- was the exact same in '08 as it was in '09, 3.72. So by those basic metrics, he hasn't had that much worse of a year.
The results are unmistakably worse in October. Hamels' 2008 postseason, in which he went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts, was capped with a World Series MVP trophy. In three starts in '09, he hasn't lasted longer than 5 1/3 innings, is 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA and was slotted behind Pedro Martinez in the starting rotation.
"It's a different year, so it's a different gig," Hamels said of the past two postseasons. "Things haven't been working for me as they did last year. I'm just trying to relax and play the game. If you put too much stress on trying to be perfect or trying to do what I accomplished last year, I'm just going to get myself in trouble and not even remotely help the team."
It's not unlike his teammate Cliff Lee, the star of World Series Game 1 for his complete-game, 10-strikeout, no-walk domination of the Yankee lineup. Lee, of course, was demoted to the minors just two years ago, only to return to the Indians' rotation last year and win the Cy Young Award, a turnaround generally attributed to him simply regaining command of his pitches.
Asked what kind of adjustments Hamels has made to regain his own form, he paused, contemplating the right way to answer. It wasn't for the usual reason of not wanting to tip his opponents off to inside information, but for the simple fact that much of his experimentation hasn't improved much.
Eventually Hamels raised an eyebrow, forced a sly smile and allowed a chuckle.
"I could say, but I might not want to say, because obviously it hasn't been working out," Hamels said. "I've been trying to do all sorts of things. It's probably more of a mental approach than anything, to not let my emotions get the best of me and take control of the situation."
Hamels has deteriorated in many areas this year, particularly in higher leverage situations. He allowed an uncharacteristically high .273 average this season, a rate that jumped to .290 with runners in scoring position. Opponents fare much better against him as the game goes on. The first time Hamels faced the lineup, he held them to a .228 average and .270 on-base percentage, but that increased to .276 and .317 in the second time through the order and an astronomical .346 and .384 in the third turn. A lot of that is simply bad luck, however, as opponents' batting average on balls in play is .413, some .115 points above the league average.
One explanation for the decline in performance could be the innings toll. After throwing 190 total innings in 2007, Hamels tossed 262 1/3 regular-season and playoff innings in '08. He's certainly had some injury troubles, too. Hamels suffered elbow tightness in spring training. He left one start early after being on the shoulder by a line drive. He left his next start after rolling his ankle while fielding a bunt. On Tuesday he pronounced himself healthy, however, having recovered from all his various ailments.
Hamels also admitted that he struggled at times with hitting his spots early in the season and with finding the right sequence of his pitches a little later in the season. At other times he says he's simply had trouble putting hitters away after getting two strikes on them.
"Sometimes when you expect perfection and don't get it all the time, you get frustrated," Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "Cole's gotten frustrated at times this year. He's got to execute and stay in the flow of the game, and not get distracted."
A strong outing in Game 3 could go a long way toward redeeming his year. By taking Game 1 in New York, the Phillies have swung home-field advantage in the series their way and obviously would like to keep that intact by taking Saturday's game.
It was, of course, Hamels' postseason success in 2008 -- combined, of course, with his marriage to former Survivor cast member and Playboy model Heidi Strobel -- that vaulted him from very good pitcher to crossover star, delivering a Top Ten list for David Letterman and appearing as a guest on Ellen DeGeneres' couch.
It was likely no surprise, then, that at the pre-World Series media day, an Access Hollywood reporter wanted to chat with Hamels, informing him that he was voted one of the top five hottest Phillies. Hamels dutifully played along, feigning surprise that he wasn't the consensus No. 1, even asking (and pretending to care), "Who are the five? Oh, I know exactly who they are."
It's certainly been a eventful year for Hamels, with his hectic offseason of celebrity, followed by a 2009 partially marred by injuries but also undoubtedly buoyed by the birth of his first son -- born hours after his NLDS Game 2 start, no less.
Hamels, to his credit, spun the decision to start Martinez a game ahead of him in the World Series into a compliment to his veteran teammate ("Pedro's a phenomenal pitcher") and even a good thing for him ("It's an honor to start Game 3 at home"). Beyond those words was also recognition that it's better for him to pitch in the safer environment of Citizens Bank Park, where his ERA was a run and a quarter lower (3.76, as opposed to 4.99 on the road) and where the lack of a designated hitter could lessen the chance of another inning getting out of Hamels' control.
Hamels calls the Game 3 start his "best possible scenario," but that'll really only be the case if he plays a meaningful role in helping the Phillies win.